Folks who wanted to be on hand for the final vote on a proposed incentive for a new five-screen movie theater might have missed their chance.
Logansport City Council members had tried to take a final vote at the same meeting where they gave the matter its initial approval, but supporters of the move lacked the votes for the required suspension of the rules.
During that meeting, Mayor Ted Franklin had indicated he would call another meeting for the following Friday, but in a discussion after the meeting, council members noted that they already had a meeting scheduled for the next day. Why not take the vote then, someone suggested.
So they did.
The result was predictable. The measure passed by the same 4-3 vote it had attracted the first time around.
So why does it matter when the council voted? In a lot of ways, it probably doesn’t. Council members had already made up their minds how they were going to vote, so any last-minute pleas by opponents of the move likely wouldn’t have changed the final result.
Still, it was the principle of the thing. Shouldn’t council members have made sure members of the public knew when the vote would be so that they could show up and make their feelings heard?
I think they should have. In a contentious issue such as this, public officials should bend over backward to make sure everyone has an adequate chance to be heard.
Panelists at last week’s public access seminar agreed.
“They’ll probably catch some heat over that,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association.
He and other panelists agreed, though, that the council had done nothing illegal. There is no requirement that governmental bodies even have an agenda, they said, and there’s also nothing to keep those bodies from changing the agenda right up to the time of the meeting.
“So as long as they gave proper notice of the meeting, they’re OK,” Key said.
That’s not the situation in every state. In Texas, for example, governmental bodies have to post an agenda 48 hours in advance, and they can’t change the agenda without that same amount of notice.
Perhaps Indiana should consider a similar requirement.
Another of last week’s panelists, Matt Light, chief counsel of the advisory division of the Office of the Indiana Attorney General, noted that Indiana’s public records and public meetings laws represented a minimum standard.
“That doesn’t mean that a government agency can’t do more,” he said.
The three panelists also pointed out that the law included no requirement that members of the public actually be allowed to speak at a meeting. The law simply requires that they be notified of the meeting and allowed to attend.
“Again, though, that’s a minimum standard,” Key said. “At HSPA, we encourage government agencies to go beyond that. A lot of people go to these meetings expecting to have a chance to speak, and we encourage these entities to give them that.”
The panelists also discussed a new law that allows local entities to establish a policy allowing private citizens to ask for notice of meetings in the same way media outlets already can. They noted that doing so was optional, but they urged participants to ask reluctant agencies a simple question: Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
“Our position would be that agencies ought to want to keep citizens informed of what they’re doing,” Light said.
Last week’s seminar was co-sponsored by the Kokomo Tribune and Pharos-Tribune. We were grateful to Superintendent John Bevan and the staff at Southeastern School Corporation for the use of the cafeteria at Lewis Cass Junior-Senior High School. Joe Hoage, Indiana’s public access counselor, said he was pleased by the 50 or so people who turned out for the event. Like other seminars the panelists have held across the state, this one drew a mix of journalists, public officials and average citizens
“It was a good crowd,” he said. “They asked a lot of good questions.”
• Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or email@example.com.